After meeting and falling in love with Edward Hitchcock, her employer at Massachusetts’ Deerfield Academy, Orra (née White) married him in 1821, beginning a lifetime of professional collaboration while raising a family amid piles of rocks and research tomes. Highly trained, white, and wealthy, she was far from an oddity in nineteenth-century education. Like many other women of her class, Hitchcock received extensive instruction in the arts and sciences, making a name by working alongside, not beneath, a man who had easier access to academic opportunities. Variously lauded as “an anomaly” and “the most remarkable” of their era, her scientific illustrations have rarely been considered on their own terms — admired for the natural historical and religious knowledge they contain — without being made an exemplar of the broader category of “women’s work”.
Moving to Amherst when Edward was appointed Professor of Chemistry and Natural History, the couple embarked on a decades-long exploration of the Connecticut River Valley’s botany and geology. While Edward lectured to eager young students about the principles of nature, from the depths of oceans to the granite veins of the earth, Orra produced more than sixty hand-colored scientific illustrations on poster-sized linen swaths designed to be hung on classroom walls.
Ranging from extinct mammals like Megatherium (a genus of giant ground sloth) through lithic strata to fossilized footprints, the collection is striking for its modern abstraction, anticipating the later works of George Maw. Although some of Hitchcock’s geological illustrations seem far from “accurate” in their specificity (or lack thereof), her devotion to clear and concise visual communication bespeaks a deep-seated understanding of complex scientific principles. Hitchcock was occasionally drawn toward the fantastical — as in her drawing of a monstrous octopus devouring a ship — making some of her work feel more at home alongside creations by later spiritualist artists, such as Hilma af Klint, than with her contemporaries’ textbook illustrations.
Like later spiritualist visionaries, Hitchcock viewed art, science, and religion as an observational holy trinity. These practices (that we might now consider disparate) worked perfectly in concert, producing a deeply devout view of the planet’s sedimentary and biological principles. Serving within New England’s Congregationalist Church, the Hitchcocks believed in “gap creationism” — an argument for the undefined lapse between the two separate creation events described in the Book of Genesis — and saw no conflict in interpreting the Bible literally in light of the growing evidence for ever-longer geologic time. Using dramatic color and simple line techniques, Orra Hitchcock points to a deceptively simple consistency underlying some of the most controversial questions of the day.
By illustrating and describing fossil records, the puzzling living creatures around them, and local landscapes so marked by change, Orra and Edward honored the complexity, and, paradoxically, the elemental simplicity, of God’s hand in shaping the earth. While it can be easy to assume a wholesale paradigm shift in evolutionary thinking after the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Hitchcock’s illustrations allow us to remember the many naturalists who were able to reconcile religious ideas about the world’s origins with growing evidence for its much-older beginnings.
Edward’s oft-cited dedication to Orra in his 1851 The Religion of Geology and its Connected Sciences rings of the pandering patriarchal gratitude found in so many books of the past: “how little could I have done in the cause of science, had you not, in a great measure, relieved me of the cares of a numerous family!” Nevertheless, the couple’s love, expressed through the language of science, comes through clearly in their personal correspondence. Far from merely translating her husband’s discoveries into visual imagery, Hitchcock produced original knowledge about extinction, stratigraphy, and their evidentiary features in the surrounding landscape. Working next to Edward in their Amherst home, Orra meticulously outlined and hand-colored bolts of linen, training eager young students to recognize and describe geological and natural-historical phenomena. Future students can view Hitchcock’s wide-ranging illustrations, featured below, courtesy of Amherst College.
April 28, 2022